Writing Contest Winners Summer/Fall 2023

Brad Neathery, Unsplash

Four times a year, we ask our teen readers around the country to write a letter responding to a recent Youth Communication story. For our Summer/Fall 2023 contest, we had a range of responses from writers connecting to stories about therapy, gentrification, self image, and identity. Congratulations to our winners and be sure to apply for our next contest!

1st Place:
12th grade, Brooklyn, NY

Re: Arriving, Finally, As My Chosen Name 

Dear Spencer,

Like you, I am a New Yorker attending one of the city’s largest high schools. Like you, I am not a cisgender woman. Like you, I have unsupportive parents. Like you, I have a friend group of likeminded queer individuals who love theater. Like you, I spent my freshman year telling teachers my chosen name and pronouns, hoping they would catch on, always speechless when they actually did.

I tried on names like one does fifth grade dance dresses at Nordstrom Rack. Rian, Vrishti, Nova, Shrabon. My favorite, the only one that actually felt like me, was Icarus, but that name felt too detached from my heritage for me to continue using it without a guilty conscience. But for Zoom school I stuck to Vrishti, they/them, he/him for the two teachers I was close with. I know how difficult finding the right name can be, so I applaud you.

Unlike you, I’ve socially detransitioned. For the past two years, I’ve gone by my birth name and hated every second of it. My pronouns, when asked, are “anything but they/them,” even though she/her grates on me. And while I’ve written countless essays on my sexual and romantic orientations, I’ve shied away from discussing gender. I don’t feel I have the right to.

My gender is something I will never be able to act on. Never will I be able to cut my hair shorter than my shoulders. Never will I be able to get a binder, much less surgery. Never will I be able to be anything but the daughter my parents need me to be. Circumstances demand this be my life, but I’m dealing with it.

Spencer, I am so proud of you. Live the life that’s been denied me. Live your life proudly.

2nd Place:
12th grade, Gonzales, CA
Re: Finding and Trusting the Right Therapist

Dear E.O.,

In the span of a year and four months, I’ve tried five kinds of therapy, with distinct individuals. None of them really worked out, considering that I’m meeting my sixth therapist next week. This story resonated with me, because I too felt frustration as I began my mental health journey. Every time I was referred to another therapist, I felt like there was something broken within me, something that these professionals couldn’t fix. 

The idea of therapy itself had already made my younger self, failing to accept my issues, feel like a broken record player. I’ve tried my best to be as compliant and cooperative as possible, but for some reason, after only a few sessions, these people assume they can’t figure out how to make me function like before, so they pass me on to the next person, in hopes that they’ll know what to do. It made me wonder, how do you know what’s wrong with the record player unless you try to spin the vinyl and listen to its ugly cacophony a few times? 

I’ve yearned to play the true music of my soul since I was 15, when I was officially diagnosed with major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, and social anxiety. I’m 17 now, and although the music now has a familiarity to it, it’s still jumbled, strange and horrific. I’ve asked myself, “Will I ever find the right person? Is it me who will never be right for them?” This compelling story brought me comfort and reminded me that I must be patient and hopeful. Even if it seems like trying to find someone new is pointless, knowing that others have struggled and found the person to help them understand their music brings me the courage and determination to do the same.

3rd Place:
Adele Lee
12th grade, Korea International School

Re: Coming Home to Harlem 

Dear Kayla, 

You express so well in “”Coming Home to Harlem” how negative stereotypes dampened your view of self and home. I’ve experienced the same: for two years I was a Korean student in Bali and suffered judgments about my looks that became internal judgments of my worth. Like you, I had to resist defining my value through the eyes of others. 

Being Korean, my eyelids lack a crease or are “monolids.” Arriving in Bali, I immediately heard, “You have alien eyes,” and “Why are your eyes so thin?” These rude observations were initially easy to ignore. But when they taped their eyes back to mock mine, I began to see myself as strange, perhaps even ugly. 

Shrill laughter and cruel judgements bombarded me daily. It felt easier to keep my head down in class than to face the looks of others. I stayed silent, unseen. The last thing I wanted was to provoke anyone. 

I became obsessed with fixing my eyelids. I searched online for how to “westernize” my facial features. Morning and night, I did “eye enlargement exercises.” Soon my efforts reached beyond my eyes. I started using a gua sha to define my cheekbones. Scraping my skin every morning and night was painful—my face would swell and redden. This pain felt necessary.

Years passed of this self-hate. Finally, I moved to Korea. The majority of the students there had monolids like mine. I discovered I could belong; the problem was others’ scorn, not my face. 

Years later, out of curiosity, I tried tape to give my eyelids a crease. In a blink all my expectations were shattered. I looked so unlike myself. I hated it. This reality check helped me realize we don’t need to change ourselves for others’ standards. Sometimes we just need a new perspective.

Honorable Mention:

Dear E.O., 

Your article, “Finding and Trusting the Right Therapist,” resonated deeply with me. My father also abused me sexually around my 4th birthday. Sometimes, I feel perversely lucky that I only have memories of memories, even though the trauma has demonstrably affected me, especially since it was repeatedly compounded by other experiences. It is only recently that I have been ready to address it all, out loud and to myself. I cannot imagine how horrific it must have been to have it repeatedly forced out of you.

I have been to therapy a few times, intermittently. I admire your candor in speaking about the struggles you encountered, having to switch so many times, and the retraumatization that it caused you. For me, the difficulty arises trying to quell the guilt I have with even the idea of going back, like because I was so young when the abuse occurred, and because I had such an unwavering support system, I do not really “need” it. Even though I understand objectively what a useful resource therapy can be, it feels like, because the other times I’ve gone, it didn’t immediately work for me, I would be taking the opportunity away from someone else. I sometimes feel like I might be the only person who struggles with the idea of therapy, as if everyone else goes and is immediately “fixed,” like that is even a thing. Your immense bravery in writing about your own experiences with it has made me feel better about it, though. Maybe I can give it another go.

–Anonymous, New York, NY

Dear Kayla,

I was in awe when reading “Coming Home to Harlem.” It was almost as if you reached into my mouth, grabbed my words, and plastered them onto the page. Though I am not from Harlem, I sympathized and related so deeply to your experiences.

I used to shy away from conversations relating to ethnicity, knowing the negative connotation that accompanies being an Iraqi. I live in a predominantly white town in Jersey and it is difficult to communicate my origins knowing that the parents of my friends were alive during the Iraq invasion, knowing that they watched as the U.S. military walked into my homeland and spilled the blood of brothers, fathers, and sons. To some, the death of my grandfather is just another number added to a statistic. Despite the actions of the American government, my people remain “terrorists.” Sometimes, when my mask slips, they are reminded that I am not one of them. They are afraid, I see it in their gaze and hear it in their tentative comments. They fear my bloodstained clothes and all I can think of is my parents’ awe at making it to the “land of dreams.”

And I was afraid of them, afraid I would find myself on the ground with blood surrounding me like my ancestors: history repeating. I kept myself hidden and would even lie when someone asked.

Since then, I have grown to know better than to believe their stereotypes. My people are filled with joy and love. They are honest and hardworking. They sacrifice and they work until they drop. I am so tired of pretending that they do not matter, that I am better than them when I know I could never compare.

This is my declaration: I am proud to be Iraqi.

Dima Al-Quzwini

11th grade, West Windsor Plainsboro High School South

Re: Coming Home to Harlem

“Oh, so you’re from New York?” they’d ask. I would nod, praying they wouldn’t ask where. Because I hated where I was from. Harlem. Like a dusty, dirty broom closet in the magnificent palace that was New York City. 

In my Columbus Circle elementary school, the name Harlem was foreign to those kids who grew up on the “good side of town,” the Upper West Side. The part of town that everyone knew. That everyone felt safe in. Because as soon as you passed Cathedral Parkway 110 St., God knows what happens up there. 

Sure, I was a city kid. But not like they were. And it hurt. It hurt so much that little 8-year-old me begged my mother to move into those lavish houses that overlooked Central Park. Because I wasn’t like the other kids. I was never white enough, rich enough, privileged enough. Until 5th grade. I moved to a school in the heart of Harlem. And for the first time, I saw something that I had never seen in my life, classrooms filled with people that looked like me. 

Well, not exactly. Now I was the white one. All of my friends were African. Not African American, but African. They knew who they were, where they came from, their culture and their history. Being half African American and half Indian was always something I struggled with. Too dark for the white kids but too light for the dark kids. They didn’t care though. They’d joke around, call me “muzungu” a word from their mother tongue. It meant foreigner. 

At least they didn’t care where I lived. Well, kind of. I was considered the rich one, the downtown kid. I lived just a block away from the school. In the beautiful, beating heart of Harlem.

Reya Davis

9th grade, Columbia Secondary School

Re: How Gentrification Has Affected Me

Dear Enoch,

In 2008, my parents immigrated from Mexico to the United States with nothing but the clothes they had on and a pocket full of dreams. They arrived in a cheap rundown apartment in East Brooklyn. I was born knowing not much outside that one bedroom apartment. It wasn’t much but it was life. It was comfort. And it was security.

In 2nd grade, my father would occasionally give me and my younger brother pocket change. It was usually always a dollar each, but we would race each other to the corner deli to buy four bags of assorted chips. At the time, each small bag sold for merely 25 cents.

The life I knew, loved and depended on, crumbled when I entered middle school. Soon the red building I used as a landmark to guide me back from karate classes was replaced with a monotone glass building. My friend, who I took the bus with after school, who invited me on Fridays to eat papa a la huancaina and lived across the street from me, was suddenly forced to move. The wealthy couple that replaced her was a constant reminder of my friend, who now lived in a shabby apartment in Virginia and whose parents both worked as they struggled to pay their new rent in a new environment. 

And before I knew it, change had reached me too. I had always been taught that change was good. But my father having to work overtime to be able to pay our new apartment rent did not seem good. So how did gentrification affect me? Sure, my block wasn’t the safest, the wealthiest, the best. But it was my home and my safety that was taken from me through the process of establishing a “better community” for other people.

Anonymous, Brooklyn, NY

Re: Coming Home to Harlem

Rooted in Heritage: Redefining My Cultural Identity

Dear Kayla,

Notwithstanding our cultural differences, I connect with your story, “Coming Home to Harlem.” Similar to Harlem, there was always a stigma and misjudgment of my culture, my people, and my land. It took me years to defeat the shame within me.

In the past, I was ashamed to acknowledge my motherland. Whenever I heard “China”, a wave of darkness washed over me, saturating every negative stereotype.

During the climax of quarantine, I would scroll through TikTok to discover anti-China rhetoric and racism. I would see comments along the lines of “They only eat dogs and bats” or “Nobody visits China because of the government, and they have no culture as well.” I was simply a sponge, absorbing everything. I would see everyone romanticize Japan or South Korea, while social media rebranded Chinese beauty trends and Hanfu as Korean or Japanese.

I would wonder to myself, “Why am I Chinese? Why can’t I be born Korean instead?”

However, my culture is rooted in my daily life: eating Chinese food, speaking Mandarin, and being able to relate to other Chinese people. These experiences shaped my memories and the individual I am now.

During this year’s Chinese New Year, I spent the majority of my time with every family member on both sides of my parents. We hung up lanterns, received red envelopes, ate dumplings, and played Chinese poker. I realized how beautiful my heritage is and how fortunate I am to be a part of such a vast culture.

Overcoming my shadows of shame was challenging, as I was too fragile to embrace my pride. I started my school’s Chinese club to spread my culture; it is never too late to support our upbringings with our seeds.

Weihang (William) Chen

11th grade, Manhattan Village Academy